Environmental liabilities: Financial liabilities reported by NASA have increased and several factors contribute to future uncertainties

Fast facts

In fiscal 2019, NASA said it was responsible for $ 1.7 billion in environmental liabilities for remediation projects aimed at tackling contamination resulting from mission activities such as rocket testing, a 45% increase from fiscal 2014. NASA had 14 sites requiring cleanup in fiscal 2019. Most of the increase occurred at one location due to strict cleanup requirements soils that NASA had not planned.

NASA is still collecting information on the cost of some restoration projects that are still in development. Additionally, new or changing cleanup requirements may increase or decrease NASA’s future environmental liabilities and federal government tax exposure.

A Jet Propulsion Laboratory plant treats contaminated groundwater for consumption.

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What GAO found

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) estimated that agency-wide cleanup and restoration would cost $ 1.9 billion as of fiscal 2020, compared to $ 1.7 billion for the fiscal year 2019. This reflects an increase of $ 724 million, or 61%, from 2014. NASA has identified contamination in 14 centers across the country, as of 2019. Five of 14 centers have reduced their environmental liabilities from 2014 to 2019, but the growth in liabilities in the other centers offset these decreases and contributed to the net increase in environmental liabilities. The Santa Susanna, Calif., Field laboratory experienced growth of approximately $ 502 million in environmental liabilities during this period (see fig.). Almost all of this growth has resulted from California soil cleaning requirements that NASA did not anticipate.

These NASA centers reported increases or decreases in environmental liabilities for restoration projects greater than $ 10 million between fiscal 2014 and 2019

These NASA centers reported increases or decreases in environmental responsibilities for restoration projects greater than one million between fiscal years 2014 and 2019

NASA’s fiscal 2019 environmental liability estimate for remediation projects does not include certain costs, and certain factors may affect NASA’s future environmental liabilities, potentially increasing or decreasing the federal government’s tax exposure. . Some costs are not included in the FY2019 estimate because some projects are at a stage of development where NASA needs to gather more information to fully estimate cleanup costs. Additionally, NASA limits its restoration project estimates to 30 years because the agency considers anything over 30 years unreasonably estimable. Sixty of the 115 restoration projects opened by NASA in fiscal 2019 are expected to last more than 30 years. Regarding factors that could affect future environmental liabilities, NASA is evaluating its centers for the contamination of certain chemicals that it had not previously identified, but does not yet know the impact of the associated cleanup on the liabilities. agency, in part because standards for cleaning these chemicals do not yet exist. New cleanup requirements for emerging contaminants could increase NASA’s environmental liabilities and create additional tax exposure for the federal government. In addition, NASA has committed, as part of an agreement with the State of California, to clean the floor of the Santa Susanna field laboratory to a certain standard, but the agency decided in September 2020 to pursue a risk-based cleaning standard, which the State of California opposed. According to NASA, a risk-based cleaning standard at the Santa Susanna field laboratory could reduce NASA’s environmental liabilities and reduce the federal government’s tax exposure by about $ 355 million.

Why GAO did this study

Decades of NASA research for space exploration have relied on certain chemicals that can be dangerous to human health and the environment. NASA has identified 14 centers across the country with hazardous chemicals that require environmental cleanup and restoration. NASA’s Environmental Compliance and Restoration Program oversees the agency’s environmental cleanup. NASA’s estimate of environmental liabilities is reported annually in the agency’s financial statements. Federal accounting standards require agencies responsible for contamination to estimate and report their future cleanup costs when they are both probable and reasonably estimable.

This report describes (1) NASA’s environmental responsibilities for fiscal years 2014 through 2019 remediation projects – the most recent data available at the time of our review – and (2) factors that could contribute to uncertainties regarding environmental liabilities. current or future NASA. GAO reviewed NASA’s financial statements, guidelines and other relevant reports and interviewed NASA officials from headquarters and three centers, selected because of changes in their reported liabilities.

NASA provided technical comments on a draft of this report, which have been incorporated where appropriate.

For more information, contact Allison Bawden at (202) 512-3841 or [email protected]

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